Film Critic Simone Salvatore marks the latest Scorsese film as one of his best thanks to stellar acting performances, despite its controversial run time
Many directors dream of making a movie that could be considered a classic, so the fact that Martin Scorsese has made several films that could be labelled as such is enough to consider him one of the undisputed greatest directors in cinema history. Whether it’s fascinating character studies like Taxi Driver (1976) and Raging Bull, (1980) epic crime sagas like Goodfellas (1990) and Gangs of New York (2002) or big-budget biopics like The Aviator (2004) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Scorsese has spent his career crafting some of the most entertaining and decade-defining films of the last 50 years. It is therefore no surprise that the director’s latest film, Killers of the Flower Moon (based on David Grann’s eponymous nonfiction book), seems poised to become yet another classic, as it is not only Scorsese’s best film in decades (perhaps since his Best Picture-winning The Departed in 2006), but also feels like the culmination of his entire career, reuniting with several of his regular collaborators to deliver one of the most impressive and impactful films of 2023.
The film takes place during the early 1920s in Oklahoma, where the discovery of oil on the Osage reservations causes the tribe to become extremely wealthy. However, with great wealth comes those who will try to exploit it for themselves; enter William ‘King’ Hale (Robert De Niro), a cattle rancher posing as a friendly benefactor to the tribe whilst secretly planning to kill them in order to obtain their riches, strongarming his guileless nephew Ernest Burkhardt (Leonardo DiCaprio) into the plan, in which the family members of Ernest’s wife Mollie (Lily Gladstone) are among those targeted. DiCaprio delivers one of the best performances of his entire career; his portrayal of Ernest is extremely restrained, often communicating his emotion simply through facial expressions and minimal dialogue, in stark contrast to the loud-mouthed, screaming maniacs that the actor is often cast as (e.g. the monstrous Calvin Candie in Django Unchained (2012)).
A scene towards the end of the third act, where the camera fixes solely on DiCaprio’s face for several unbroken minutes as he is harshly interrogated, exemplifies this perfectly; neither his facial expression nor even his lines of dialogue change (only repeating “Yes sir”), but solely through his phenomenal facial acting, DiCaprio expertly conveys the sad, pathetic waste of a man that Ernest has become.
De Niro is similarly excellent as the conniving Hale, who unlike the brooding, often dialogue-light characters that the ten-time Scorsese collaborator is used to playing, is a boisterous and loquacious Machievellian, and De Niro takes great delight in chewing up the scenery at every opportunity. This villain could easily have been too pantomimic, but aided by the strength of the screenplay and Scorsese’s assured direction, De Niro reins himself in just enough that the performance never feels like a caricature.
However, by far the standout performance of the film comes from Lily Gladstone, who totally dominates the entire film as Mollie. Much like DiCaprio, her performance is mostly quiet and unassuming, but there is always heartbreaking sadness in her eyes that bubbles just below the surface. As her family members are murdered one by one, Mollie’s suppressed grief explodes out of her, and Gladstone’s performance grounds that grief in such a way that feels completely believable and never melodramatic for the sake of it.
A number of other recognisable names round out the film’s supporting cast, and they all deliver memorable performances even with limited screen time; Cara Jade Myers is a scene stealer as Mollie’s fiery sister Anna, Jesse Plemons is reliably great as the BOI agent sent to lead the murder investigation, whilst John Lithgow and recently-crowned Oscar winner Brendan Fraser are enjoyably over-the-top as the blustering attorneys fighting over the case.
At its heart, Killers of the Flower Moon is about the banality of evil, and how it often operates in plain sight. “Do you see the wolves in this picture”, Ernest reads aloud from a children’s book early on into the film’s running time; as it turns out, the wolves are everywhere, and they aren’t very well hidden at all. Ernest and his duplicitous uncle order hits on the Osage tribe members as casually as one might order a pint of Guinness at the pub, treating the murder of their fellow man with total mundanity. The murders throughout are not framed as a typical Hollywood death scene, where the victim’s body flings backwards in slow motion as an overly sappy musical score blares in the background; the murders are quick and over in a flash (many even occurring off-screen) and the violence, though undeniably disturbing, is never gratuitous or fetishistic. The nonchalance with which Scorsese frames these acts of evil only serves to make them more horrifying; these were not committed by moustache-twirling cartoon characters, but human beings like you or I, who were willing to casually kill innocents simply on the promise of profits. This horror even extends to the bluesy, guitar-driven musical score from the late Robbie Robertson, who previously scored The Irishman (2019) and The Colour of Money (1986) for
Scorsese. At times, the score almost feels like another character; the track ‘They Don’t Live Long’ is a particular standout, combing echoing guitar chords, mournful vocals and a continuous thumping drumbeat, giving the impression that even the music itself is crying out in pain at the loss of life throughout the film.
However, despite the film’s grandiosity and impact, it is by no means flawless. One of the most noteworthy aspects of the film, its gargantuan 206-minute runtime, also ends up being its greatest weakness. Though the first and third act are expertly paced, the middle hour of the film drags at points, almost as though the characters are spinning their wheels and waiting for the plot to catch up. Considering the film is due to be released onto Apple TV+ immediately following its theatrical run, the running time was likely modelled with the streaming platform in mind, where it could be paused and restarted at one’s leisure. Furthermore, an argument could be made that by having the story mostly play out from his perspective, the film is perhaps a little too kind to the character of Ernest. Perhaps the story would have been better told from the perspective of Mollie by an Osage filmmaker, but I also appreciate that a) the film likely would not have been made at all without Scorsese’s name attached (as sad as that reality may be) and b) Scorsese may not have felt comfortable superimposing his perspective onto a people he is not a part of. Either way, it certainly makes for some interesting discussion about Native American representation in contemporary cinema.
Killers of the Flower Moon is a towering achievement, daring to openly condemn America for its role in the systematic slaughter of an entire race, with impeccable performances and mind-blowing visuals to boot. It’s one of the best movies of Scorsese’s illustrious career, and considering the heights he’s reached in the past, that’s certainly saying something.
Killers of the Flower Moon is in cinemas now.
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